For much of the second half, Orlando Hernandez was the Mets’ best pitcher. He solidified the starting rotation behind Tom Glavine as John Maine struggled and Pedro Martinez labored toward a return.
But as the season enters its final days with the Mets allowing an ungodly number of runs, the possible return of El Duque could be a crucial fix for a Mets team that is backing into the postseason. Without him, either as a reliever or pushing John Maine to the bullpen, the middle innings appear to be one pitcher short.
Hernandez came out of an August 30 start against the Phillies with pain in his foot, and the injury recurred during a September 11 outing against Atlanta. But following a strong bullpen session Tuesday, the Mets plan to try and pitch El Duque out of the bullpen before the regular season ends on Sunday. Should the Mets clinch prior to Sunday, scheduled starter Tom Glavine would certainly be pushed back to the playoffs, leaving an opening that Hernandez might well fill.
The Mets have posted a 5.36 ERA this month, a mark that will make winning in October difficult, particular when Mets hitters are facing less forgiving pitching staffs than Florida’s. Many of the pitchers who contributed to that mark will likely not be a part of the postseason staff—in other words, enjoy Carlos Muniz while you can—but suddenly, an extra starter doesn’t seem like such a luxury.
John Maine has been remarkably inconsistent since the All Star Break, alternating good starts with bad starts, while mostly avoiding the gems he threw with regularity in the first half of the season. A walk rate of more than 4 per nine innings, along with an increase on batting average on balls in play is to blame—and getting behind the hitters is a sure way to increase their line drives.
Tom Glavine’s last two starts have also been troubling, with the 300-game winner allowing 6 runs last night to the Nationals over five innings, one start removed from giving up four runs to the Marlins over five innings.
Adding Hernandez to that postseason rotation, pushing Maine to the bullpen, would provide a boon to both units.
“I’m excited to see him this close,” Mets General Manager Omar Minaya said last night at Shea after a 10-9 loss to the Nationals. “He’s one of a kind in terms of what he has to offer.”
Minaya traded for Hernandez with Octobers in mind.
And rightfully so—he is more than just a pitcher who, prior to his two injury-riddled starts, had a season ERA of 3.07. Hernandez is one of the finest big-game pitchers, statistically, in baseball history. In 19 games, 14 starts, El Duque has a 12-3 record, 2.55 ERA, and 107 strikeouts in 106 postseason innings. There’s no question with Hernandez of whether he can handle the pressure.
The bullpen, which has been shorthanded outside of Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman and Pedro Feliciano, would also benefit, as John Maine would almost certainly move there in an October series requiring four starters.
Maine holds opponents to a .213 average the first time through the order. And he’s tough on both lefties (.245 batting average against) and righties (.238 batting average against), giving Willie a pitcher he can use for full innings, rather than matching against lefties only (Scott Schoeneweis) or just righties (Jorge Sosa).
If Hernandez goes to the bullpen, he could be an even more valuable asset. He’s been death on righties this year (.165 BAA), solid against lefties as well (.245 BAA). He’d come at hitters with a huge variety of pitches and speeds, and could pitch multiple innings if necessary as well. And he’s even done it in the postseason—entering a game in the 2005 ALDS for the White Sox, he entered a 4-3 game at Fenway Park against the Red Sox with the bases loaded and none out in the sixth inning. He calmly retired the side, and Chicago went on to win the World Series.
The biggest question about the whole transaction is whether Hernandez has lost anything from his layoff.
“You have to remember, he hasn’t pitched in a long time,” Willie Randolph said after last night’s game. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves.”
Maybe. But as a month filled with lost leads and high-scoring victories has proven, the alternatives are pretty grim.